There are many important policy improvements in Florida Senate Bill 48, the innovative education choice legislation sponsored by Sen. Manny Diaz Jr. that is receiving so much national attention. But my favorite enhancement is the creation of education savings accounts (ESAs) for lower-income families.
This year, Florida is providing scholarships to about 140,000 lower-income families via the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) and Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) programs. Currently, these scholarships can only be used to pay private school tuition and fees, or transportation costs to attend an out-of-district public school. The scholarship amount cannot exceed the annual cost of tuition and fees at a student’s chosen private school. If a student is eligible for a $7,000 scholarship but the tuition and fees at her private school are $6,000, then that student’s scholarship will be only $6,000.
This year, 17% of our FTC/FES scholarship recipients received scholarships that were, on average, $641 less than a full scholarship. That means 23,800 students, who researchers say are the state’s lowest-income and lowest-performing students when they receive a scholarship, did not get $15,255,800 in scholarship funds they were financially eligible to receive.
If the Florida Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis agree to turn these scholarships into ESAs, then every scholarship student will receive the full scholarship amount, and any funds not spent on tuition and fees may be spent on additional education services and products such as tutoring, books, summer school, and software.
Some private and charter schools already are planning to create afterschool tutoring and summer enrichment programs to serve families with excess ESA funds. Families also may use ESA funds to purchase services from their neighborhood district schools and certified teachers who create their own afterschool and summer programs. More small business development, especially in lower-income urban communities, is a benefit of the enhanced spending flexibility families have via ESAs.
An important feature of ESAs is that unspent funds roll over so parents may spend them in future years. Some elementary and middle school families, for instance, probably will roll over unused ESA funds to help pay for high school expenses, which are often unaffordable for scholarship families.
Sen. Diaz’s bill is a long way from becoming law. But Florida’s legislative leaders, in collaboration with our governors over the last 25 years, have made steady progress toward providing our state’s most disadvantaged students with more effective and efficient learning options.
I am confident that the education choice bills that become law this summer will continue this trend.